I woke from the nightmare secured by stiff sheets, suffocating on the odor of clean with an aftertaste of bare wet iron as if I’d been snorting rancid bean curd lo Mein.
“Hi, Lindsey. Can you hear me?”
She must have seen my eyes moving under the lids. I wasn’t ready to come from the darkness, taking in the muted shuffle of soft-sole shoes on linoleum, quiet voices, the rustling of papers, ticking – an odd ticking – someone breathing heavy, a whoosh, change pitch, whoosh again and repeat, behind that a rhythmic beeping from many sources like aliens talking back and forth.
“Lindsey. Can you hear me?” Fingers rubbed hard on my upper chest.
Yeah, I can hear you. Now go away.
“You’re lucky to be alive.”
Matter of opinion.
Another voice Dopplered from the door. “Dr. Howard said she’s awake?” The voice was tense, dripping with reserved optimism and excitement. This voice I wanted to hear.
Mom. I thought I said it. I hadn’t. I tried again with the same result. Her hand came to my cheek.
I opened my eyes. I wanted to say I couldn’t see, everything a smear of dancing colors. Mom kissed my forehead, sobbing.
The other voice intruded. “This machine’s helping you breath. Don’t try to talk.”
Stop asking me stupid questions, then.
Mom forced words through her sobs. “You’re going to be just fine.”
Time will tell.
Again, the other voice intruded. “Did you see the person or persons who did this to you? Do you know where you were held?”
I dropped my eyebrows, scrunching my face, shaking my head no.
Mom, tangled in my breathing tube and IV, draped herself on me, crying.
“Maybe later.” The voice withdrew.
I coughed out the endotracheal tube, which didn’t seem as invasive as frustrating given my recent past. I gathered my right lung had collapsed. Being a minor, explanation came from above with eyes rolled to the left, jargon masquerading as information.
I was repeatedly assured the prognosis was good with a full recovery expected. This made me honestly believe I’d code any minute.
The hospital must have had the intrusive voice on speed dial. Not that I puzzled over such things, I assumed she was attached to the hospital, maybe a shrink to help me sort out the mess. She introduced herself on the second meeting, not three minutes after the tube slid from my throat.
“Kelley Lewinsky.” She badged me like on TV. “John Hopkins.” She thumbed over her shoulder. “We’re with the Mayor’s task force.”
I couldn’t help myself. I looked past her. “You’re kidding, right?” My throat hurt. My whole body hurt. I managed to talk, barely able to move my lips and unable to sit up.
The younger detective, in his late twenties, half Kelley’s age at least, blushed.
“I don’t know what you’ve been told –”
I cut her off. “I meant the name.”
John Hopkins shrugged. “I’ve considered changing it.”
John snickered. I knew we’d get along.
“No one told me anything much. I didn’t want to ask. I vaguely remember dark and wet. I remember smelling something like when I opened an old ‘fridge that’d been laying in a dump for God knows how long with food in it.”
“What are you doing playing in a dump?”
“Recycle center. We climbed the fence on a dare. I think I was ten.”
“Five years ago.” John nodded.
I was sure we’d get along.
“I thought I was easily distracted.” I closed my eyes. “I’m a Dumpster Girl?” I’d thought as much long before I was dumped.
“That’s what the press is calling the victims.”
I let out a slow breath. “I’m the third.” I resented being called a victim. I was victimized. I chose never to be a victim.
“Seventh.” John glanced his notepad.
Kelley shot him a look, then turned back to me. “The press has you as the fourth.”
“Sorry.” John’s sorry was to Kelley, not me. “That’s off the record.”
I nodded the best I could.
“We need to know everything you remember.”
“Nothing.” I did not roll my eyes up and to the left. “I’m not in the Scooby Gang or anything like that, but are you sure?”
John snickered. “Because you’re older than the other vics?”
Vics. How cute. “Me and a friend got a morbid curiosity.”
“No offense, Lindsey, but unless he carded you, how’d he know you’re not ten, maybe twelve?”
I took my turn blushing.
“Oh.” Kelley made a note. “What’s the last thing you recall?”
I did my best to look like I was thinking. “Leaving school on Friday.”
“That’d be three weeks ago.” John pointed his pen.
I stared, my whisper breathless. “That long?”
John jumped on his rhetorical horse and galloped around the room. “The doctor said in cases like yours, it’s not abnormal to experience memory loss. Chances are you’re never going to remember any of it, which could be a good thing for you, given the medical reports.”
John looked from Kelley to me. “Would you be willing to undergo hypnotic regression?”
I held his eyes. “What? Is the voodoo priest on vacation?”
Kelley pressed the importance of remembering. With seven known victims, she had no doubt there’d be more.
John Hopkins had wonderful puppy dog eyes and knew how to work them. I was disappointed he thought I looked ten, maybe twelve. I don’t have an overactive imagination, but I do have an imagination, after all.
A girl can dream, especially a fifteen-year-old girl.
He owns a gun and has a carry permit.
During the six interviews, I watched their eyes. I knew they couldn’t hear what I had to say. I knew they couldn’t step into the fire with me. They looked at the medical records. Kelley turned white, John green. They talked to experts. They reconstructed what might have been done to me. What they thought damaged their souls.
Seven Dumpster Girls, only one survived.
I remember everything. I can’t tell my mother, maybe the strongest human being I know. The fire would sear the flesh from her bones.
That’s why I never told anyone.
I had my lower intestine resected along with reconstructive surgery to my anus, rectum, vaginal opening, and vaginal canal. They managed to stop the bleeding of my uterine wall without doing a hysterectomy. They, the doctors in charge, were concerned about the trauma a hysterectomy might have on a fifteen-year-old child.
Given the uterine wall, fallopian tubes and ovaries were burned useless with chemicals, likely bleach, I don’t know why they were concerned with preserving my uterus.
My right wrist was broken, with three fingers smashed. I’d enumerate my contusions, cuts, lacerations and bruises but it’d be easier to draw a human body map and mark what’s not been hurt.
Over ninety stitches circled around my face.
They took my appendix, which was inflamed. They noticed when in to wrap my bruised liver and kidneys with fiber mesh. It was just as well they opened me up. They had to take a liver biopsy to determine the best treatment for my hepatitis C infection.
I tested positive for syphilis and two strains of gonorrhea.
The rear and front of my brain were swollen.
I had an atypical pneumonia infection, having repeatedly aspirated semen and urine.
Dad came to the hospital often, only to my room once. Horror dripped from his eye sockets as if he were the vic. He proclaimed in a mindless blurt I was lucky I didn’t have AIDS.
Mom’s hand came firmly up the back of his head, she shoved him hard on the shoulder and sent him away, cursing under her breath. Mom’s the strongest, most powerful person to ever take flesh. Her wit and sarcasm can scorch the landscape.
She passed the gene to me. Maybe that’s why I’m not dead.
I wasn’t named on the news; however, the Dumpster Girl murderer was thoroughly profiled ad nauseam on the twenty-four-hour cable news shows. Talking heads filled the screen, bantering on and on nonsense, having no way of actually knowing anything. The same flaccid faces missing the DC Sniper by three and a half universes relentlessly pounded away, giving every detail imaginable of the Dumpster Girl murderer, right down to boxers or briefs.
Boxers they said. They were wrong.
My medical details, along with the other known victim’s records, were not released but enough was leaked, leading to speculation parading as facts. The coroner gave interviews off the record. The way I know this, is one article quoted her, speaking off the record.
“You know, keeping my name out of the news isn’t going to help.”
I looked forward to John Hopkins’ daily visits. Though he denied it, I knew his visits weren’t official. He’d stopped asking whether I remembered anything.
“If he knows you’re alive and who you are, he could come after you.”
“I had my purse with me. He’s got my school I.D. tacked to a cork board.”
“I had my purse. That’s what I’d do if I were him.”
John brought comic books, which I traded for magazines. I liked how he took interest in me. I was young, not dumb. I imagined he was romantically interested in me, I knew he wasn’t.
At least he shouldn’t be.
I wasn’t a virgin at the time of the occurrence. The occurrence is what my father called it, his eyes never finding mine.
Since two and a half minutes after my first indiscretion, I felt my choice an error in judgment. I still feel I made an error in judgment, but not necessarily an error. I’d been seeing Tommy for a couple of months. He was fifteen, too. We made out a lot.
I guess a lot.
I admit it. I got a kick out of him dry-humping me with our clothes on. I didn’t get the bells-and-whistles feeling or burning desire to be penetrated I read about in the magazines. I was still curious.
We didn’t have a conversation like people say we should. One night, with his parents away and us making out for an hour, I pulled a condom from my purse. He couldn’t get his pants down quick enough. I insisted we go to his room. I insisted we get naked. There’s something about Tommy with his pants around his ankles that’s – I don’t know.
In the dimness, naked, Tommy made a confession. “I don’t know how to do this.”
This, was put on the condom. I’d seen movies featuring bananas or latex surrogates, still I lacked practical experience. I wasn’t a stranger to his penis, the turtle-headed snake making an appearance occasionally while dry humping. I’d never actually touched it. Naked, in the dark, sitting on the bed, he stood before me, the penis bobbing in my face.
I was glad for the dark. I blushed, my face hot.
I crowned his penis with the condom and rolled it down just like our health book said. I scooted back on the bed. He followed. His lips touched mine. I took hold of his condom-clad penis. He bit my lip. As I wondered how difficult actually getting the penis in my vaginal canal might be, with a little push on his part and a tugging inside me, his penis disappeared.
He released my lip.
The penis backed up, plunged, backed up and plunged once more. “Wow.” Tom pecked a kiss and withdrew. “I gotta go to the bathroom.”
Given my experience as a kid on a farm, I wasn’t surprised.
His cheeks danced like Jell-o as he hurried away.
He returned two and a half minutes later. “You’re not dressed yet?”
Yeah, romantic, I know.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying my close encounter of the penis kind with Tommy got me ready for the occurrence.
John Hopkins was not a large man. I enjoyed watching his dark Baker’s Chocolate eyes watching me as he talked. Helpless on the hospital bed like a turtle on its back, I wondered whether I’d be able to receive a penis in my vaginal canal again. The doctor, as if I wasn’t there, assured my mother I’d be able to have normal sex.
“How many children you want to have?” My question stopped John in mid-sentence.
“Hadn’t thought about it.”
“Would you do what the girl you marry wanted?”
“How do you know I’m not married now?”
He nodded. “I really don’t know. I’m not sure I’d make a good father.”
Right answer from where I was lying. “Why not?”
He watched the floor, rubbed the back of his neck and then wrung his hands. “I’m just not baby-crazy like most women I meet are.”
I knew John lost his way, never meaning for a fifteen-year-old vic to become a confidant. I’ve always been a good listener and as he played his puppy dog eyes well, I played my listening well.
“I understand,” I said.
John opened up to me. I got the feeling he held things in his whole life and those things weighted him down like a ten-yard dumpster on his back. I wondered if my story untold would do the same to me. As he shared about his stoic taskmaster father, I could see his step get lighter. The lines in his face smoothed as he told story after story of his never-diagnosed alcoholic mother, maybe schizophrenic.
The weeks ran like water under our bridge and by the time I could get out of bed, John was kissing me on the forehead hello and goodbye.
At five-one, ninety pounds soaking wet on a high gravity day, hair the shade and luster of light brown sugar teasing my waist in dancing flows, ashen gray/white/ocher complexion, arms and legs about ten feet long, oversized eyes the color of early spring lima beans, I did look twelve years old – stretching it – and I did look like an Anime character.
They sent some schoolwork along first with Tommy, who smiled with a Herculean effort and threw up on the bed, floor and me. I think Tommy would’ve asked for his ring back if he ever gave me one. Then, the schoolwork came with Janet, my best friend back to diapers. Janet was spellbound, first getting my autograph. She taped a pen to the cast. We giggled as I signed an article cut from the newspaper.
“God Lind! You’re a Dumpster Girl!”
“I can get you a date with him.”
She laughed. We do have a morbid curiosity.
“Who else knows?”
“Billy and Jack in A.V.”
“Who told them?”
She giggled. “Sorry. They’re the only kids in the school who don’t know!”
Janet just had to see all the stitch scars. When she saw the railroad track of staples holding my guts in, I thought her eyes were going to pop from her skull. She sobered. Great favor: She didn’t throw up on the bed.
She flipped through nine weeks of schoolwork, hitting the highlights, holding completed assignments for my signature. “Riggins said you’d be out by summer and can make up the year in summer school.” She rolled her eyes. “I think you should just test out.”
“Likely. I’m not going back, that’s for sure.”
“Other than yours truly, unless you’re in a meeting at NASA or a convention of Nobel laureates, you’re the smartest person in the room, anyway.”
“Other than you, of course.”
John had a surprise soon after I was taken off the IV and colostomy removed. He put me in a wheelchair and we went downstairs to a room filling with people.
“Tuesday and Thursday evening. I’ll come back for you,” he said.
“Oh, this is a support group.”
“Survivors of sexual abuse.”
I bit my lip, looking up. “You could have asked me.”
“The doctor says –”
“Then let her come down here twice a week!”
“Lindsey, all I ask is you give it a chance. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come back.” He bent, kissing the top of the head.
I was the only minor, drawing attention, whispers and looks. I’d always been comfortable in my skin, never feeling out of place or self-conscious. I sat in the wheelchair, wearing hospital scrubs and the Care Bear robe my mother brought from home. Everyone wore street clothes, meandering mindlessly, moving chairs to form a circle.
“I think she’s in the wrong place.”
I couldn’t tell who said it.
“I thought this was for adults. I don’t want to scare children, you know.”
“Maybe someone should ask her?”
“Where’s her parents?”
Again, words manifested high in the air. I worked my chair into the circle and looked up at the man who didn’t wish to scare children. “I’m Lindsey. My friend thought I’d like it here. I’m new.”
He looked down his nose. I don’t fool myself. I know what I look like, a tiny child with more stitch scars than Frankenstein’s monster.
Hi Lindsey’s filled the air, people taking chairs.
“We’re pretty adult here.” A woman to my right, my mother’s age, prefaced a long speech.
I showed her my palm, the one with the cast to the elbow, watching Carl.
I narrowed my eyes. “Scare me.”
Carl looked around for help.
“You said you didn’t want to scare children. Scare me.”
“I didn’t mean, you know, we talk frankly about our experiences.”
I shrugged. “Scare me then.”
Carl blinked hard.
A whisper, breathless and dark, came from the green linoleum floor. “Oh-my-God. It’s the Dumpster Girl.”
Gasps circled like a wave at a baseball game.
One woman sobbed, soon to be joined by another.
“I didn’t know she was so young.”
Carl sat, his mouth open, staring, seeing me for the first time.
“You know, in the news. That girl that was, you know, and left for dead in the dumpster, but she wasn’t dead like the others.”
They knew. They couldn’t say the words for what they knew. Eyes stared, drinking me in until I looked, eyes dancing away to examine hands, the floor or the ceiling, anything but me.
I had hopes. I looked at the twenty-plus faces, praying to see one that could stand the fire.
They buzzed, like my ear to a beehive, as I struggled to the double doors. No one moved to help, maybe afraid to get near.
No one could help.
I worked the wheels, John Hopkins looking back into the room.
“They didn’t want to scare me.”
“Maybe they didn’t understand?”
“Maybe they did.”
“It’d be another thing, I guess, if you remembered.”
Yeah. It would.
“I thought if you got to listen to people that’d been through similar experiences, it’d make you feel better.”
“I don’t feel bad.” He meant well. Maybe I could have meetings in the cemetery, a séance. “I’d like to meet the families.”
We entered the elevator.
“The six families?”
I watched his face, John watching the floor numbers above the door. I took his hand. He held back.
He didn’t look down. “That’s confidential information. You can’t just knock on their doors.”
“You’re on the task force.” Maybe I whined and I haven’t whined since I was old enough to open the front door without help. “You could ask them? When I get out? You could take me?”
I drained my lungs, finally without too much pain. “I need to.”
Anyone who believes withholding information can protect children in a society like ours where information is disseminated anyway, should upload his or her picture to Wikipedia to go with the article on denial. Big smile in the picture, hands held up, fingers spread, palms out like Ronald McDonald. Attending an urban school with a large diverse population, virginity fell early and often. Conversations about sex were a daily fare, like announcements over the public address system.
I was thirteen. No, not when I lost my virginity. I hate that phrase but it’s all I’ve got right now. I was thirteen when I had the sex talk from my father. If he was counting on his presentation to keep my knees together, well, let’s upload his picture. Dad’s a Fallen Catholic. Mom and I attend a new age church. Dad mows the lawn.
“You see.” Dad addressed me from his lofty perch. “Your body’s a perfect temple. Soon, you’ll be a young woman and young men are going to want you doing things. You understand?”
He waited for a nod.
“Some day, you’re going to get married and have babies. Those babies are going to be perfect, like you.” He nodded.
I returned the nod.
“You don’t want these young men to defile you. To corrupt your perfect body. To ruin you. Do you know what it means to be corrupt?”
I nodded, thinking of a refrigerator I opened after it sat in a dump for weeks, food inside, a once-red tomato soiled with black splotches.
“You must respect your body and not allow anyone to defile you.”
Dad’s always had a crush on Mom. I’m talking schoolboy crush. She walks in the room and takes his breath away, literally. I feel Dad doesn’t need church. He’s got his god at home.
Dad has a similar worship of me. I watch myself in the mirror, trying to see me through his eyes. He created me, a perfect meld of Mom and him. I am breathtaking, in a subtle sensual way. I can think I imagine what it’s like for Dad to look at me. I know I can’t come close.
I’ve seen enough movies to know the wheelchair wasn’t an option. I didn’t plan on dancing down the halls, but I could hobble almost briskly if I gnashed my teeth and doubled my meds. Forty people showed up to see me off, hospital staff and doctors from all three shifts.
I was, they said, a miracle.
The faces smiled, some with tears. I was kissed by and kissed most. I hugged them all, from the elderly man who cleaned the floors at night, sitting and talking with me when I woke up scared, to Christy, the girl close to my age, a volunteer, who changed my colostomy bag once, sneaked me candy bars and held my hand while telling hospital stories.
The staff knew I was the Dumpster Girl. When the press came sniffing in the corners, no one said anything.
I rose outside the door, presenting my face to the sun. I thought they should applaud, my gauntlet of well-wishers, melting away.
Forty steps, one twelve-foot landing in the middle and at the bottom, thirty feet of concrete separated me from the car, waiting in the no parking zone. Dad watched the windshield. I’d have magically run through the pain and torment, taking the steps four at a time, if Dad’d gotten out of the car, spreading his arms like he had on my first day of school a lifetime before.
Much more than cold, gray concrete separated us.
Tommy wanted to do it again the next day after our first and only time. I didn’t want to get dry humped, I didn’t want to make out, and I certainly didn’t want to do it again. I couldn’t explain why. I didn’t know why.
I wrapped myself in the telephone cord. “No.”
He hinted we could hide behind the boxes in his basement, his mother being home. I imagined his pants around his ankles, his penis bobbing in my face.
“I don’t feel well.”
“You don’t think you’re pregnant?”
What a stupid, ignorant thing to say.
“Pregnant people are always sick.”
“I’ll see you in school tomorrow.” I hoped, wished and cursed he’d not tell anyone. I thought about ditching, afraid how our friends might look at me. I didn’t even tell Janet, not because I wanted to keep the secret. She’d give me those wide eyes and ask me how it was.
Dad, the day before, came home from work and called me to the door with that coaxing voice I’ve come to love so much. I ran for the foyer just as he dropped his hat and coat on the chair. He straightened, towering above, eyes devouring me as they always did. He smiled, as he does, offering a package, plain brown paper.
I accepted the gift and allowed myself to breath again. Pulling at the wrapping like a five-year-old, I was so in love with Dad in that moment, happy he couldn’t see I’d been defiled, corrupted. I thought his love perfect. I thought even if I told him, even if he knew, he’d still drop, accept my arms around his neck, lift me up and carry me into the kitchen to show off my new book of Audubon’s nature drawings to Mom.
How could I be so very wrong?
Dad watched the windshield. I’d hoped John Hopkins would come. He hadn’t.
Mom looked across the steps and pursed her lips. “You OK to walk?”
“Oh, Mom, they’ve been making me do hours of laps everyday.” One doctor said the more I walked, the quicker I’d recover. I walked a lot.
“You take care of yourself, Lind.” Christy backed the wheelchair away. “Call if you need to.”
I nodded sharply without turning, bit my lip and took a handful of Mom’s blouse, twisting down the first step.
“Let’s go home.”
I’d mistaken Kelley Lewinsky for the hospital shrink, which had a lot to do with the drugs. Ronnie Bosch didn’t look any older than John Hopkins. I knew she was. A soft woman with puffy lips and flamboyant bangs circling from the center of her head to the top of her gold-frame John Lennon glasses, her hair tied in the back, creating a ponytail rivaling mine. She squinted her caramel eyes a lot, I thought from the overabundant mascara. She was slight and drawn. I’m thin, but that’s my body type. This woman could use a bag of hamburgers.
She wore straight dresses, subtle colors, breaking at her knee, her white lab coat four inches below that. I could hear her coming, three-inch pumps tapping on the floor tile. She never sat, and she never took my hand. I was well into my recovery when she poked her head in.
“I’m Doctor Bosch.” Standing over the bed, she glanced at her clipboard. “I’m a psychiatrist attached to the hospital. Is it OK we talk?”
I set my Cosmo Girl aside and read her nametag. “Sure, Ronnie.”
“Doctor Bosch or Doctor.”
I’d called Kelley and John, both detectives with the Mayor’s task force, by their first names. The head of surgery invited me to do the same, though I was uncomfortable at first. I had a teacher the year before wanting us to call him Bob. The name stuck in my throat, feeling creepy.
I blinked twice, bit my lip and released a long sigh. “Sorry, Doctor Bosch.”
“I don’t need any of your sarcasm.”
This isn’t going to go well.
I nodded, keeping her eyes, afraid to say anything.
“You’re fifteen years old?”
She marked the form on the clipboard.
She read my home address and telephone number.
“You’re currently in ninth grade.”
“Tenth.” I didn’t want to disagree. She left me no choice.
“Are you sure?” She puzzled at her form.
I knew she meant the question rhetorically and having been warned about sarcasm, I explained. “My birthday’s in October.”
She stared at me from under her bangs.
“I started kindergarten at four.”
“When’d you get your first period?”
Again, I kept the warning in mind, tempted to give a date and time or mention something about the end of a sentence. “The week before Christmas after my twelfth birthday.” I thought to add I’d been set-the-atomic-clock-by-it regular ever since but decided to wait for the question.
“Must have been traumatic.” She made a note. “Given you recall so exactly.”
“Nah, Dad gave a box of tampons as a gag-gift, hanging on the tree. Funny, that.”
Again, the stare.
“We’re open and informal about all the normal body functions at home.”
Again, a note.
“How regular are you?”
I got the impression Doctor Bosch didn’t do much work with children.
Well, she was pretty, but that’s not what I meant. “I’ve been pretty regular.”
“When did you first have sex?”
I wondered what the question on the form actually was.
“Why’s that important?”
“I can’t expect you to understand, but it is.”
I shrugged. “I guess it depends on what you mean by sex.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I told you I don’t need your sarcasm.”
“OK. I was kissed the first day of kindergarten.”
“Some people consider kissing sex, even if there’s no tongues!”
She pursed her lips. “You know what I mean.”
“When was the first time a boy touched you down there?”
She was pushing it. I couldn’t bite my lip hard enough.
“By down there, you mean my vagina? Over top count or down my pants?” I was going to ask whether other girls touching me down there counted, not that I had anything to report. I just wanted to be offended by the implication.
She didn’t look like she was going to smack me, so I went on. “You didn’t read my chart, did you?”
She hadn’t, preferring to do background on sexual abuse cases with a clear and open mind.
“My case is not a sexual abuse case.” John Hopkins and I talked about this. Maybe to the outsider, there’s no distinction. “Whatever sexual history I might or might not have, had nothing to do with what happened.”
Finally, a question I expected from a head-shrink.
“I don’t remember.”
Again, I’m sure she meant the question rhetorically. I had trouble believing she was that far from the hospital water cooler.
“I’m a Dumpster Girl.”
She narrowed her eyes, opened and closed her mouth, the color leaving her face.
I didn’t want to tell my best friend, Janet, about Tommy. I certainly wasn’t going to tell a stranger. Doctor Ronnie Bosch stopped in every few days, never staying long. I heard her coming, perched on her heels. I asked if she wore heels because she was ashamed of being short.
She answered with a look.
She was never without the clipboard and prepared questions. I got the impression she was working on some scholarly paper about human behavior.
“What drugs do you abuse regularly?”
Her questions came steeped in assumption.
“You never experimented with illegal drugs?”
That’s a different question.
There’s a place we go, that’s to say the kids go. Armond’s Records. It used to be a record store back before I was born, when records were popular. It’s not in a great part of town. Collectively, we don’t tell our parents. Now, Armond, a kind, elderly gentleman, sells CD’s, comic books, novelties, video games, cigarettes to anyone asking and sundries. I’d not use the word sundries, but for the ancient sign out front. He’s got a video arcade, some tables to hang out and drink sodas if we want and I’m told, having no direct knowledge, a person can get any kind of illegal drugs or even a prostitute.
I went first with Janet on a dare. Janet and I said we loved the place. Really, it scared us. I went back by myself a few months later. Some kid thinking he knew me from school asked if I wanted to get high. We went out back to the alley and I had my first and last experience with pot. I got the same feeling when I did three pirouettes in a row.
“Wow, man. Cool.” He leaned close. “Wanna go ‘cross the street?”
I shook my head, trying to clear my vision. “For?”
“My God, woman! Uncle Joe’s! Best damn barbeque on the planet!”
Ah, no. Not that I didn’t like good barbeque.
I bought what I came for, a condom three-pack, one I used the next week with Tommy, the others I threw away, not wanting Mom to find them.
If I hadn’t thrown them away, my life would be a whole lot different.
My first experience with condoms arrived pre-puberty. Education in animal husbandry came early, too, the summer before my twelfth birthday. Janet and I, through school, joined a summer youth program, working on a farm.
OK, that’s not too corny.
For four weeks, we stayed in a barracks with six other girls.
The McDougal farm. Yeah, the owner was old. Yeah, we called him Old McDougal and even sang a song about the farm he had.
E eye e eye, oh.
Mrs. McDougal was a jolly elf of a woman, built low to the floor and broad, her hair the color of noonday clouds and just as fluffy. Her round ochre face didn’t betray her years, eyes sparkling from slits when she laughed and she laughed often. She wasn’t that old. To us, she was ancient. She walked with a crook, sometimes unnoticed, with her cherry wood cane always at the ready to steady herself or chase off a barn cat or brave fox from the henhouse.
I asked whether she missed her first husband: Santa Claus.
The program was set up to expose us to as much as possible. Through screams, whines and tears from most, we got to break a chicken’s neck, pluck and butcher it. Only one of us actually broke the chicken’s neck without help and it wasn’t me.
We watched a pig butchered.
We hoed about seventy-four acres of weeds, hoeing and weeding obviously very important to our Farm Hands education. We sowed scrawny, wilting vegetable plants from plastic flats, soon to resurrect with renewed, lush life.
We piled into the back of a pickup truck, promised a rare treat for city girls. Soon at the neighbor’s, we were ushered into a barn, lined up along a plank fence. Four men on the other side huddled around a standing cow. One man’s arm was buried up to his shoulder.
We might have been grossed out if not spellbound.
Mr. McDougal, foot on the fence rail, nodded. “Yep, this is it, girls. The miracle of life. Yep. The miracle of life.”
They, the men, two of them, had a leg. Pulling and pulling and pulling. “That’s it,” the oldest of the men said, stepping between the cow and us.
He cut a flap like in a canvas tent, taking open the side of the cow, bailing out fluid with his cupped hand.
“Time to go, girls. We thought the heifer might be too young.”
We didn’t hear or we didn’t heed Mr. McDougal, watching the calf, dead, pulled from the cow, dropped to the floor.
“Happens,” Mr. McDougal said.
The cow died that night.
Janet cried uncontrollably.
Two days later, we piled into the pickup and again led to another fence, this time in a pasture.
A boy – I say a boy because he was, maybe sixteen – perfect teeth with a smile squinting his eyes, approached from the pasture side. “Howdy!”
Yeah, believe it or not, he said howdy.
“How are you ladies doing today?”
We nodded and mumbled, I think apprehensive we’d watch something die.
“Do any of you know what this is?” He presented a baby bottle.
I thought to zing the obvious. Someone beat me to it.
“Either your breakfast or an insemination tool.”
God, I wish I’d tossed that over the fence!
He har har har-ed. “I know I got a baby face!” He scanned us. “Do y’all know what an insemination tool is?”
Most did and those that didn’t gathered the context. Our faces went pink. I watched a lot of public television. I thought I knew what was coming.
A farm girl – I say farm girl because she was dressed the part – led a horse from the barn, ignoring us, rope attached to the bridle in one hand, patting the horse’s neck with the other.
“Say hi to Red.” The boy bowed, a hand extended.
The girl in our group with the insemination tool comment said: “Hi Red. What’s the horse’s name?”
He ignored the heckle. I’d had enough of her, too.
He raised the bottle again. “When we don’t have a stud, we buy seed from another farmer.” He winked. “We have a stud.”
The horse was larger than the cow. The man had his arm in the cow up to his shoulder. I shivered, wanting to thank the boy for the lesson and run for the pickup. Another horse was brought from the barn.
The horses were lined up. I didn’t want to look. I had to look. I was sure the stud wouldn’t be unable to penetrate the mare. The stud jumped, his chest sliding off the mare. The farm girl steadied the mare.
The stud jumped again, shimmying forward, the penis now extending like a telescoping pole. The horse poked, his penis jumping, shimmied, poked, shimmied and then found what he wanted, plunging deep, holding, plunging deep, holding and once more, the penis sliding free, flaccid, retreating dripping ooze, the horse dismounting.
The girl next to me sighed, speaking in a breathless whisper. “That muck knocks up the mare, the baby dies and takes her with in. Least they could bring flowers.”
“How many cows and horses die giving birth.” I held the boy’s eyes. “Do you know the percentage?”
He har-ed again. “Not many! Practically none at all!”
“Aren’t we lucky.”
Janet woke screaming. In the soft glow of the nightlight, she held her hands inches from her face. As much as we get warned, we’re never ready. I knew, she knew, she wasn’t bleeding out like the cow. Still, all the blood. I wanted to scream, too.
The lights came on, Mrs. McDougal ready to deal with the worst. The other girls didn’t laugh like in the movies, some eyes fearful like mine. The eyes not fearful belonged to those girls having stepped over the threshold. They watched Janet, welcoming her home to the unspoken sisterhood.
Mrs. McDougal, holding Janet, us gathered around, told stories about animal husbandry, human reproduction, life and death into morning.
Doing dishes on our last day, Mrs. McDougal washing, me drying, I said: “The cow died.”
I didn’t know what to ask. “Why?”
“Breach, stillborn.” She leaned on the sink, considering the ceiling. “Nature is a ruthless suitor, has its way. We know ways, too, and when confronted, we stand a bulwark against fate. When the sun goes down, even with our best efforts, nature’s going to have its way.”
“But we tried anyway?”
“Yes. We did.”
We returned from Farm Hands different, changed, Janet more than me. We wanted to know things. I stopped by the drug store four blocks up the street.
“How old are you?” The cashier was my mother’s age, maybe older.
I shrugged, nodding to the notice on the counter. “I’m not buying cigarettes. What’s it matter?”
“These are for one thing only.” She waved the Trojan, extra lubricated package.
I liked the helmeted guy. “We just want to see what they look like.”
“Who’s this we? I think I know your mother. I’m going to give her a call. She can get to the bottom of this.”
I ran for the door without my purchase. I never went to that store ever again. I held my breath for three weeks, finally realizing the woman didn’t really know my mother.
If I could’ve bought condoms on the corner, my life would be completely different.
I’m pretty bright for fifteen. OK, maybe for any age.
“Come on in the house.” Mom tensed on my arm.
I watched Dad’s car shrink away, finally turning off.
“He really did have to get back to work.”
“Yeah, I know.” Dad didn’t have to take off work. Mom didn’t, either. I was aware they were drowning in medical bills. I could have taken a cab. Kristy’s mom could have dropped me off. I’m sure if I asked John Hopkins, he’d hire a limo. I could have hung around the hospital until after Mom got off work. I bet I could have yelled down the hall: anyone want to give me a ride home? and fistfights would’ve broken out.
“I can get to the kitchen and the bathroom. You don’t have to wait on me.”
I suffered to the porch and up the steps. Mom pushed the door open. I dropped on the wicker chair, exhausted. “You’ve not raked out the gardens.”
“Been busy with you.”
“Didn’t mean it that way.”
“Maybe I’ll do it, weeding. You can get them to drop a truck of mulch like last year.” I surveyed the yard, sad with neglect, damaged by winter’s nature.
Mom looked down. “You hate gardening.”
I chuckled painfully, rolling my eyes. “This may come as a surprise, but I just might be rethinking what I hate.”
I didn’t have an answer. “Pansies. Where’s the pansies? We have pansies every year.”
Mom dropped to a knee. “I didn’t have time –”
“I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“I thought we’d go down the school tomorrow.”
“You thought wrong.”
I shrugged, working to my feet like crawling through a muddy sewer pipe, pushing on Mom’s shoulder, grunted twice and winced once. “I need a cane.”
“I thought about crutches, maybe a wheelchair.”
“A cane.” A tear found the corner of my mouth, salty. “There will be pansies.” I accepted, at least superficially, the changes forced on my body. I dragged my right leg behind me like a stubborn child. Someday, maybe just a limp. I cancelled my ballet class and piano lessons. Softball was out. The childhood dream of being a magazine cover girl, though never realistic, was put to final rest by the railroad track scars circumnavigating my face. Time, I was told, would diminish the imperfections. They, at the hospital, planned follow-up reconstructive plastic surgery. Insurance and money were an issue.
I stamped my foot, fetching a yelp from my gut. “Dammit Mom, there will be pansies!”
“I’ll call the nursery. See how much they’ll charge to –”
I gnashed my teeth. “I-said-I’ll-do-it.”
“We can talk about it after we get you back to school, when life gets back to normal.”
“Ain’t gonna happen, Mom. I’m too tired to fight with you now. I bet I could test out of twelfth grade today if I wanted. Tenth?” I rolled my eyes.
I liked school. I liked the smell of the books and the glow on the floor from the morning sun blasting through the windows. I liked the plastic chairs and wooden desks, the shine on the gym floor and squeak of sneakers, my backpack with secret compartments, the feel of the pen on my fingers put to paper and the tap of chalk on the boards. I liked the river of kids flowing between classes, the hodgepodge of voices, shoes on linoleum, banging of lockers, perfume and indigenous human smell mixing, becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Me, a microorganism among other microorganisms. Faces, mostly known to me, coming from the crowd, smiling with bright eyes or sharp nods.
The classes, none challenging other than keeping my 4.0. My average isn’t really 4.0. Some teachers felt the need to trim the grade, just to keep me real. I didn’t care, as long as my 3.98 was higher than Janet’s 3.96. Janet and me were the go-to girls, approached before the kids would ask the teacher or request a tutor.
I could teach the classes.
Helping other kids made school challenging, rewarding and an experience I looked forward to with Christmas-morning excitement.
Lunchtime filled me with hope for the future. A spiritual experience, children with roots from all over the world, every background imaginable, every religion represented, communing, communicating, sharing and laughing. I thought they should serve fish sticks and boardwalk fries at the United Nations. We found common ground behind the seafood and thick-sliced potatoes.
I’d get dizzy in the cafeteria, watching the future of humanity play out. What amazed me most was no one realized just how amazing we were. The meld came naturally, like menses down my inner thigh.
I’ve known how smart I am since before the womb. Unlike other smart kids, I’ve been secure with myself, not needing to prove anything. My teachers like that, me not being smug. I’d take counsel, listening even when I knew the information, never trying to prove a teacher wrong, that somehow doing so would raise me up.
That’s for the insecure.
I understood my role. If I had an issue with information presented, I’d correct the teacher privately, often debating, missing my bus. We held mutual respect in high regard.
My dad couldn’t look at me and Tommy, who had sex with me, threw up on my bed. The school experience of my memory was more of dream and madness, never, ever to exist again in objective reality.
When life gets back to normal.
Like late night on the beach, with whispering waves ebbing high and retreating, I had the hint of what I’d lost, the sun threatening to appear, to illuminate all details. I had an idea the full weight, length, breadth and height.
I had no control over what I lost.
I stamped my foot again, yelping. My lower lip and shoulders shook in sympathetic spasms. Angry, painful tears forced down my cheeks.
“There will be pansies.”
Mom flipped her phone shut. “I won’t be long.”
“I’m OK, really. I get around fine. Go do what you gotta do.”
She cupped my face, swiping with her thumbs. “The tears tell me different.” Mom’s touch, that she wasn’t afraid to touch me, look at me, settled on my psyche as proof of God.
“I said fine, not great.”
We giggled at each other, so much alike.
“Janet promised to come over after school. I can get my own lunch if I want to eat. Go to work. I’ll be here to fuss over tonight.” I grimaced. “Maybe I’ll furrow the backyard this afternoon if I can find the hoe.”
She pushed her compact cell phone in my palm. “Keep this with you.”
“In case I fall down and can’t get up?”
In a passing fit of paranoia, I thought the phone call from Mom’s work preplanned. At least Dad was honest enough to just grumble he had to go back.
I was glad Mom left, taking her worried, judgmental eyes with her. Dad wouldn’t look and Mom wouldn’t stop.
The house enveloped me like a womb, familiar, nothing changed, right down to the vague mint air freshener. I felt more comfortable dragging myself around without Mom staring, her eyes burning, trying to carry me with the force of her will.
An hour later, I sat at the kitchen table with a cup of chamomile, eyes wet, sweat beading on my forehead, panting. “That wasn’t so bad.” Going through all the well-wishes would easily kill the afternoon. Not that it was a big secret, but Mom thought to keep details private. Cards, notes and flowers came to the house, Mom bringing the flowers to the hospital, not wanting to bother me with the cards and notes.
Mom’s an introvert and if in my damaged shoes, wouldn’t want anyone bothering her. As smart as she is, she too often thinks I’d want what she wants. Mom controlled the visitor’s list, limited to Tommy and Janet. Tommy, because he was my boyfriend, visiting only once and Janet because she’s my best friend.
I thought people just didn’t like hospitals.
A timid authoritative rapping sang from the front of the house. I know that’s an oxymoron but only to the casual observer. I flipped Mom’s phone open and punched some numbers, guessing who was at the door.
“John Hopkins,” the voice answered.
“It’s open. I’m in the kitchen.”
Moments later, John kissed the top of my head, setting a gnarled oak cane with curved pearl handle across the table. “It was my grandmother’s.”
“It’s beautiful. You can have it back when I don’t need it anymore – next week.”
He dropped cattycorner, his eyes worrying at me. “You don’t look so good.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know. I’m not taking the pain stuff.”
“To prove what to whom?”
“Nothing to nobody! I want to get a realistic gauge of how bad things are. Masking the pain can fool me.”
“I get that.” He took my right hand, gently pushing his thumb between my knuckles. “What do you think?”
“I’ll be able to hold the cane, the piano, no.”
“Your fingers seem plenty flexible.”
“Too stiff. There’s no way I want anyone saying she plays beautifully all things considered. I don’t want a handicap.”
“Well, you are –”
“A handicap. I mean I don’t want people giving me rope, saying, for example, my piano is great – considering. What that means is I suck, but they’re going to say great to make me feel good.”
“I don’t think people do that.”
“I have.” I put my free hand over John’s. “Last year, kid in gym class. Challenged. She couldn’t hit the softball. The pitcher had to hit the bat. We conspired to let her get on base, finally to come home. She was so excited, dancing around, the team celebrating the run.”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
“We did it for weeks.”
“She went out for the team.”
“I’d like a bubble bath.”
John’s white face – I don’t mean Caucasian, his flesh white, slightly ashen, the perfect compliment to his black hair – pinked. I suggested he grow his hair out, at least to his shoulders. The cop-cut was mandatory.
“You shouldn’t have asked me if I needed anything.” I didn’t let his hands go. “I mean since the day I woke up in the hospital.” Actually before, but that’s a secret. “I’ve wanted to soak in a tub.”
He stared, watching my eyes. Unlike my mother’s stare, I didn’t mind. John’s eyes took me as I was, not pitying, not trying to fix.
“I mean, I could use your help.”
He blinked. “You should keep the doors locked.”
Cute. “It’s a safe neighborhood.”
“Doesn’t matter. One random act, you know.”
One random act.
“The head-shrink told me to expect feeling generalized fear of like everything and maybe develop agoraphobia –”
“Do you even know what that means?”
“She didn’t tell me it was contagious.”
John blinked his wonderful Semi-sweet Baker’s Chocolate eyes. Over the weeks, John slipped across the line. I watched him sink in the mud. I pushed him down, encouraging him. Twice my age, he fell in love with me.
Rather, he fell in love with the idea of me. Much like my body was broken, John was broken inside, his soul damaged. Between the lines of his stories, lay the impetus for John’s self image. Early on, I knew John didn’t feel worthy of being loved, that love came down from the mountain, thick with expectations and weighted with chains.
Unlike my father’s love that flowed across me unconditionally before I was corrupted.
Yeah, I’m fifteen. No magic trick or superhuman ability. A blind guy driving by fast could see it.
I listened to John. I drew him into my womb, safe, nurtured, loved to some day be born again anew, as close as I’d ever get to fulfilling my Darwinian destiny.
Struggling to my feet, John rose with me.
John rose with me.
That’s what made us OK.
“Carry me upstairs?”
“I have to get back.”
I giggled, groaned and giggled again. “John!”
Blushing, he scooped me up. “It’d be an honor.”
I grimaced, sobbed and growled.
John stared up and ahead, the burden not evident. The jolt from each footfall sent pain reverberating throughout my body. He smelled of Ivory soap and not aftershave. Under the soap, strayed a musky cedar like Grandma’s old chest where she stored pictures and keepsakes, evidence of Dad’s sordid heritage. John’d never held me before, but once lifting me in and out of the wheelchair.
For three eternal steps, he looked at me, his breath minty. I wondered first if he spritzed his mouth on the porch, preparation for his mouth being near my face. Then, I wondered if my mouth reeked like rancid bean curd lo Mein. I’d not spent a lot of time with the toothbrush or shampoo.
I snuggled into this shoulder. “As OK as I could be.”
I could have, maybe should have, mastered the steps alone. My need lent value to John’s existence.
John made sure the bubbles were in reach and lit the candles. “Sure you don’t want me to draw your bath?”
“Draw my bath? Does anyone really say that?”
He entered my bedroom. “I just did.”
“I like to sit alone and listen to the water run.” I hobbled around, looking up.
“Sounds like my cue to exit, stage right.” He took my face, bent, kissing my cheek.
He withdrew. “Yeah?”
“You never kissed my cheek before.”
“Have not. A girl keeps track of such things.”
He winked. “You were sleeping, no one looking.”
I read three chapters in my civic book, the bubbles left to where bubbles go, the water went cold and I almost fell asleep.
The door creaked open. “Hiya, Lind!”
“Boy, am I glad to see you.”
“Good guess. I could maybe roll out –”
“But you don’t want to flop around the floor like a fish outta water?”
“How ‘bout I wash your hair while you’re all wet and all?”
“I’d love you more than I already do.”
“If your mom didn’t have the butch, she’d known to bring real shampoo and conditioner to the hospital.”
“Parents are high maintenance!”
With Janet combing my hair dry, me on a chair, Janet sitting on my bed, Janet delivered a thirty-minute discourse on the latest schoolwork.
“Mom thinks I’m going back to school.”
“You told her weeks ago.”
“Where is she? I thought the mom-gene would be over activated.”
“Work. Feels good to be home alone, you know.”
“I can only imagine.”
“John kissed me.”
“On the lips?”
“On the cheek.”
“Yeah. I don’t think he gets out much.”
“If you weren’t so banged up already, I’d smack you around.”
“I disagree with your lame captive audience theory.”
“More that I listen.”
“Sincerely listen. I’ll tell you Lind: a boy sincerely listening for three minutes equals three hours of him boasting about anything.”
I opened my robe. “Look. Look at me.”
“John doesn’t throw up.”
“John’s a homicide detective, chosen to work on the Dumpster Girl taskforce. He’s seen a lot of reality”
“Yeah, I’m reality.”
“Well, yeah, Lind. Tommy and most people live in the sanitized world, where things like this never happen and when they do, they happen out there in some vague alternate reality.”
“I get all that. I’m not sure I want to be loved by default.”
“John’s trading down.”
“I’ll never be able to have children.”
“Lot’s of people don’t have children. I don’t want to have kids.”
“Really? When’d that happen?”
“The first day I saw you in the hospital.”
“Too much reality?”
“Too much reality.”
We laughed, Janet better than me, with lemonade sitting on lawn chairs in the backyard, over the rumors flying around school.
Janet blushed. “I got expelled for three days.”
“That’s what they said!”
I giggled. “For?”
“You know how you’re the cause célèbre. I’m like co-infamous ‘cause we go back to the sandbox.”
“My infamy splashing on you.”
“Yeah, like that. You got lots more close friends who know you really, really, really well than you ever imagined.”
I rolled my eyes. “Bootstrappers.”
“I think you mean coattailers.”
“You’re the one on meds. Anyway, Tommy’s like boasting in the cafeteria –”
“How he threw up on me?”
“How he was glad he got to, and I quote: nail the bitch before she got all ruined.”
I spit my lemonade. “You’re kidding?”
“I went up to him, you know, to articulate the error in his syntax and point out his etiquette faux pas, but the words stuck in my throat. I just smacked away until my arm got tired.”
“He did.” I blushed.
“Figured, but I don’t care. I mean, it sucks you didn’t tell me. I do understand why. Doesn’t matter if he’s telling the truth or not. He wanted to bootstrap his social status climbing up your back and he didn’t care how much it might hurt you.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Bootstrap, yeah, I see the difference. Did he cry?”
“Like a baby for his bottle. Did you?”
“Nah. More embarrassing than private.”
Janet winked with a giggle. “Did he penetrate?”
I gave her the open mouth and wide eyes. “You didn’t tell me!”
She shrugged. “More embarrassing than private. You know, you make the decision –”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Given horses and cows.”
“Gunk and death.”
“Oh, you remember?”
“Hard to forget, the cow too young. She looked at me, you know, those cow eyes, as if the guy didn’t have his arm in her.”
“Yeah, I remember. Like us young heifers.” Janet sighed. “I don’t know why I bothered.”
“We’re in my room, half undressed. He’s breathing so hard, I thought to call 911. He’s poking his thing at me. I get the condom and work it down his chicken neck, when the condom fills up like a balloon at a carnival game.”
“And he told you how great you were?”
“That’s the script.”
I squinted at the flier. “Says she’s ten.”
“Who’s it look like?”
“We going to play state the obvious?”
Janet snatched the paper. “I wasn’t going to show you.”
“Sorry. How long?”
“’Bout a week.”
Janet rolled her eyes. “Ten days.”
“She’s dead. Been dead for awhile.”
“You sure – sorry, of course you’re sure.”
“Not that I remember anything.”
“Yeah right, girlfriend. You smell of it. You stink. If John Hopkins wasn’t so insane in love with you, he’d see it, too. Your mom doesn’t see it ‘cause she doesn’t want to and your dad’s not looking. The doctors decided long ago your memory encoding was derailed by the trauma. You got nothing to remember.”
Janet nodded. “You can’t fool me. We shared a sandbox, are the same flesh. I do understand you don’t want to go there, that it’s horrible and gotta scare the hell out of you –”
“It’s not that.”
I held her eyes. “I don’t know anyone who could stand hearing the story.”
“Whoa and damn, girlfriend! You remember!”
I blushed the deepest blush I ever blushed. I’d not fallen for that trick since before I tossed my training wheels. “Yeah.”
She whistled. “How much?”
Janet wanted details. She cried uncontrollably after we watched a calf stillborn. I convinced her my memory was more like a dreamscape, not valuable as a narrative. She believed me. I watched her eyes. I knew she couldn’t walk in the fire with me.
“You don’t have any information that’d help the cops?”
I didn’t blink. “No.”
“I’m just glad you survived.”
I’m not sure I did.
There’d been a story we followed the year before, a nine-year-old was raped. The perp, fearing discovery but too squeamish to kill the child, buried her alive. In the aftermath, her father said given what she experienced, she was better off dead. The comment left me dumbstruck. Janet and I clutched hands and cried, yet unable to turn away from the story.
“Yeah, me too.” I retook the flier, staring at the image. “They said twelve.”
“The news, said the vics were twelve.”
“I bet they weren’t.” I presented the flier as proof. “I’m betting ten. The news isn’t getting the facts.”
“Could gum up the investigation?”
“I’d think a public warning with all the details in the world would help people be safe.”
I shrugged. “I gotta ask John. I’m betting the girls were someplace they shouldn’t have been.”
“Where were you?”
I answered with another shrug.
“Don’t you like your pork chop? It’s your favorite.”
I pouted. “The knife doesn’t work, Mom.” I couldn’t hold my utensils in my right hand any better than a chimpanzee. “I’ll get it.” Sitting on a hard chair hurt.
Mom watched my hand. I redoubled my effort. I wanted to cry. I wanted to shout: Why don’t you come cut this up for me! I sat straight, forcing a smile, pushing the pain back. “Pork chops and ‘kraut: like being in heaven. Head and shoulders over the hospital food.” The hospital food was good, sometimes great. I had no complaints. I knew what Mom wanted, maybe needed to hear, life getting back to normal.
“Johnson at work is a piece of work.” Dad watched his plate. “He’s one of those guys who thinks he knows it all and has to say something about everything.”
“Sounds like any guy to me.” I was ignored.
“He’s the new hire?”
“Three weeks on the job, you know. We’re setting out the new display. You saw the diagram I drew. Ed said the changes to the plan-a-gram were great. Ed, you know, twenty years on the job?”
“Ed’s your immediate manager?” Again, I was ignored. I gave up on the knife, taking the pork chop with my fingers.
“I didn’t actually make changes to the plan-a-gram. The people in the head office determine how displays and the shelves should be laid out. That’s why all the stores look the same, you know.”
“I mean, if you know where peanut butter is in one store, it’d be in the same place in any other.”
Again, Mom nodded, working on her dinner.
“We can make minor changes, you know, as long as we leave the basic layout alone.” Dad’s hands cut the air vertically. “I thought the chips should go here.” His hands jumped to the right and cut the air again. “Next to the gas grills going on sale.”
“Since when do you sell gas grills?” Again, ignored.
“Well, Johnson just has to say the chip display should go here.” The hands jumped yet again. “Because more people are right-handed and not left-handed. Of all the stupid reasons. Can you imagine? Ed rolled his eyes and said to do it like I said. I’m glad Ed’s smart, huh?”
Dad, looking at Mom, nodded my way.
“That’s not very ladylike.” Mom bobbed her chin.
I blinked at Mom. I wanted to scream I’m a cripple, that my hand didn’t work, that I couldn’t hold the knife, that once I got better, back to normal, I’d not eat pork chops with my fingers. “No, it isn’t. Sorry.”
Dad droned on ad nauseam about that Johnson.
Normal would be Dad asking about my day, listening intently to what I learned, not understanding half but listening anyway.
The pork chop was good, like heaven.
“Dad, would you carry me upstairs, please? I need to lie down.”
I caught him in mid-sentence, a sentence I didn’t hear. His eyes came from the table to me, dead, cold, painful, unfathomable. Like that, his eyes darted away. “No. The doctor said –”
That was it. I covered my scarred face with my broken hand, elbows on the table. I could stand against anything, the harsh realities of life. I could not stand the death of my father, the man sick in love with me, who worshiped me no matter what.
I’d never have guessed no matter what had limits.
I stood unyielding against immeasurable horrors, determined not to allow my body to die, forcing the next breath into one functioning lung shackled with atypical pneumonia. My mettle and temper alone made the miracle the hospital dubbed me. When lying cold in the deepest winter of despair, my body still under attack, it’s the sun shower, the light and warmth of my father’s summer, his unconditional love, the promise that kept me going, forcing the next breath, that next heartbeat.
I cried into my hands, uncontrollable sobs shaking the table, rattling the china. I wondered if I had enough painkillers to kill myself – to kill the pain.
The front door resounded, my father bravely running away. Mom came to me with a there, there. I pushed her away.